How do you define church? When I asked this to a group of RCIA candidates entering the church, their responses varied. Some described church as the building, the teachings, the Vatican or the people. Others said the church was its history or the saints. In times of transition and crisis, I often think of the church in terms of those who have come before. I look at how many responded to and/or challenged the church in times of struggle and division and how those responses impacted the church of today. The effective responses kept our eyes on the message of the Gospel and the love of Christ.
In the Anchorage Archdiocese, our local church is in a time of leadership transition. As challenging as it is to have to say goodbye to Archbishop Paul Etienne, this is part of life in the church, and also a common experience for Alaskans. As a 30-plus-year resident, I have welcomed many wonderful people to Alaska and have said thank you and farewell to many others. Regardless, all have left an impression on me, as Archbishop Etienne has clearly left an impression on our local church.
The ministry of Safe Environment is fortunate to have been under the direction of Archbishop Etienne. The Independent File Review Commission continues with its work to review all clergy and religious personnel and safe environment files. They will also continue with their report and recommendations on how the archdiocese can be more fully transparent, accountable and responsible in its commitment to ensuring an environment that rejects abuse, misconduct and abuse of power. Archbishop Etienne’s decree establishing this commission has kept the archdiocese moving in a forward direction, and it calls for our next leader to follow through with the support of the Archdiocesan Lay Review Board.
As we continue addressing the sexual abuse crisis, I also look to the inspirational discussions with those who feel called to become members of the Catholic Church. The appeal of a worldwide Roman Catholic Church, unified under the pope, is often shared by those interested in joining the church. The richness of a worldwide church is a sacred image of Jesus Christ as the savior of all people. Remembering our universality especially when teachings, messages and norms are developed for the worldwide church is important to our identity.
It is challenging, however, to create standard procedures for all to follow even within a local church, let alone all dioceses across the globe. There has been pain, anger and disillusionment in discovering that the church could be a place where our most vulnerable have been abused, and where some leaders have ignored this abuse of power for years. That is so contrary to our most basic beliefs. But Pope Francis, on May 9, presented new universal norms to address the abuse of power and the abuse of our most vulnerable by priests and bishops.
Kurt Martens, a professor of canon law at Catholic University of America School of Canon Law, describes the meaning of these new norms in a recent article in America Magazine titled, “Pope Francis’ new sex abuse rules are a revolution for the Catholic Church.”
Martens notes that the pope’s new document “shows that he is taking the abuse crisis very seriously… The painful, sometimes bitter, experience of the church in the United States and the voices of the faithful worldwide have helped bring about a change in attitude and a change in law. There is no turning back now, and the tone has been set for the future.”
He adds that the new norms are a “critical step forward in protecting all victims from the scourge of sexual abuse, not only in the United States but throughout the universal church.”
As is necessary, these norms will face debate and critics. But as the church journeys together towards its mission in a changing world, I anticipate that these new norms will be a starting point for our worldwide church to continue to move forward in a positive direction.
As we say farewell to Archbishop Etienne, I am grateful for his leadership and collaborative style, especially in moving the archdiocese towards better ensuring safe environments. May our local church continue to focus on our mission, and to ensure that the dignity of the most vulnerable, their families and the people of God are protected. May we recognize that we are all called to speak out against abuse, harassment and abuse of power. We can do this by contacting the archdiocese victims assistance coordinator at (907) 297-7786 and reporting concerns to local law enforcement. May we also make an effort to become informed of the archdiocesan safe environment policies. Our unified mission begins with each person committing to care for and protect the dignity of all.
The writer is the director of the Anchorage Archdiocese’s Office of Safe Environment.